I love Ali Smith. I read the accidental at university and was struck by how fresh and strange that novel was – it felt new, in a reading list full of modern fiction. I was intrigued by this title – How to be both – when it came out. It made me think immediately of all the great stuff I associate with her writing; especially her approach to representations of gender and voice and time.
I read this immediately after H is for Hawk, which I will not write about here as it’s non-fiction, but there were some crossover points which occurred to me as I read, and will share here. A shared theme is grief, and healing. H is for Hawk is an autobiographical journey through grief and the process of healing, which is meticulous and earnest. I enjoyed it, although it felt slightly over-written, and it is a fascinating insight into a world of birds of prey I knew nothing about. Reading How to be both immediately afterwards was a good demonstration of the versatility of fiction versus non-fiction, and why I have chosen to dedicate this blog to it.
How to be both tackles the subject of grief through the prism of a young girl whose mother has died. It is structurally and narratively inventive in the way that it does this. Rather than a straightforward ‘telling’, Smith uses structure and time to make the reader feel unsettled, as though something is missing, and a genuine sense of wrong-footing, which is reminiscent of the disbelief often associated with grieving. Moreover, this is just one of the themes that could be said to be central to this novel. It is thoroughly multifaceted… like the best fiction should be, it is about everything.
One thing you may already know about this novel, which should give you some insight into the artistic ingenuity of this writer, is that two versions of it were published simultaneously. There are two narrators – George, the young grieving girl, and Francesco, an artist from Renaissance Italy – and the novel is divided into two sections, one narrated by George and one by Francesco. The two different versions start with different narrators. The version I read begins with George. Immediately, the way we perceive the world of this novel is being playfully manipulated – the narrator with whom you begin will form your first impressions, and so, as in life, our first biases are formed.
I’m not going to write an essay, although the temptation is strong. There is a lot to say about this novel. It is disarming, and clever, and utterly different to anything I’ve read this summer. The way in which Smith plays with gender, and femininity, and female experience is very exciting. I can see myself (next summer) re-reading and re-reading How to be both – especially Francesco’s narrative, which is sprinkled with hints and references that would benefit from closer reading (closer reading than is really possible whilst sitting in a beer garden in Berlin..). I adore this novel. Read it, please.